New Spiritual Disciplines: No.1 – The discipline of Phonedown

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What role does spiritual discipline play in your life? Those two words, used for centuries but re-coined by Richard Foster for his hugely-successful book Celebration of Discipline, have the power to strike fear into the hearts of Christians everywhere. They suggest a faith that's about commitment, personal investment and self-control, when most of us are much happier to reflect on the glorious grace of God.

Spiritual discipline isn't easy (though nor is grace, when understood properly), and it's almost always hugely counter-cultural. Yet it's through our commitment to spiritual practices – prayer, worship, study and much more – that God meets us and transforms us.

The classic disciplines listed by Foster aren't just the obvious tools like prayer and fasting, but also attitudes, prayed through and practically expressed. These include submission, the discipline of putting others ahead of ourselves, and simplicity, through which we ask the questions: "where in my life should I have and do less, and what should I be making room for?" All of these tools and ideas deserve a revisit from the modern Church; I've found them personally transformational and I believe they contain the antidote to a lot of negative modern church phenomena.

Yet I also wonder if our rapidly-evolving culture doesn't demand some addenda to Foster's list. Surely there are some counter-cultural attitudes we could adopt, prayerfully, which would speak powerfully and prophetically to those around us, and begin to change us too. Over the next five days, I'm going to propose five such ideas; five little attitudes of the heart and mind that could make a huge difference to us and those we know. And the first is perhaps no surprise...

The Discipline of Phonedown

I'm sitting at my son's swimming lesson. He and the children in his group are all four or five years old. They're in the beginners' group; none of them are going to trouble Michael Phelps just yet, but they're splashing about endearingly. Every few moments, my son looks across at me for reassurance, just as the other children squint to find their parents' smiles. We're all seated along benches on one side of the pool. But today I'm the only one looking at the water. I realise that every other parent is staring at a mobile phone, more captivated by their emails, their diary, or Facebook, than by seeing their child take their first tentative splashes toward an important achievement.

I'm not judgmental in that moment, but convicted – seconds earlier I'd also responded to a not-very-urgent message, and had a quick scan over my social media newsfeeds. All of us in that room have become slaves to the little buzzing devices in our pockets; 'always-on', even in moments of personal and familial significance. I'm lucky because I realise what I'm doing, and switch the phone off (for half an hour, that's all). I catch sight of a little girl desperately trying to attract her mum's attention beside me as she successfully swims with a float. Her mum doesn't see, but she does make a significant breakthrough in her game of Clash of Clans. So, swings and roundabouts.

Mobile phone addiction – which in its most serious form is now a psychological condition – has crept up on us as a culture, and is now all-pervasive. That's not news, but perhaps the idea that we should fight the fact still is. So many of us struggle with that little itch in our pocket or bag; the sense that we might be missing something; that we can't go on with our lives without seeing if someone has commented on that photograph we took of a latte, or sent us an email, or said something wrong on the Internet. So we interrupt our conversations, or we allow ourselves to be distracted from the things that matter, by constantly pulling out that little device – usually 'just to check'. We do it without thinking; without much awareness of the rudeness or distractedness involved. We do it all the time.

Our phones also have the power to distract and divert us from a relationship with God. So-called quiet times are easily invaded if we're ill-disciplined enough to have our phones with us. Smartphones have also put paid to 'dead' time; those moments waiting at the bus stop or walking through the park where once we were momentarily liberated from being occupied or contactable. So often those can be the moments when we check-in with God; when we take time to notice spectacular beauty among the ordinary, or practice self-reflection. But as long as our batteries are charged, there's no need for any of this anymore.

Phones aren't inherently bad, but our ill-discipline around them deserves addressing. That's why I think we need to see our use of our mobiles as a spiritual issue; an area of our lives in which we invite God to work. So as the first of these new spiritual disciplines, I want to suggest that we begin to practice "Phonedown"; an attitude which prioritises real-world relationships and experiences above the constant itch to check a mobile device.

It means praying regularly that God would give us the ability to ignore and control the urge. It means taking time regularly to reflect on how and how much we're using our phones, and being prepared to adjust behaviour where necessary. Most importantly though, it means becoming aware of how our interaction with these devices could be impacting our ability to relate well with others.

Husbands and wives sit alongside each other on the couch (my couch!), engrossed in their phones instead of one another. Colleagues frequently frustrate each other in work meetings by becoming distracted mid-sentence by a buzzing mobile. Swimming children look up for their parent's faces at the poolside, but gain not even a flash of recognition in return. These things can change; the phenomena are new enough to reverse. We just need to invest in a little self-discipline.

Questions for reflection

1. How big an issue is mobile phone distraction/addiction for you? How are you most likely to be caught by it?

2. One famous restaurant game involves friends piling phones up in the middle of the table; the first to reach for their device pays the whole bill. What strategies could you put in place to limit or mitigate mobile use?

3. How does your phone get in the way of your relationship with God? How could you prevent that – and are there ways in which your phone could even enhance that relationship?

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders

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